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Ninetieth Birthday of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh

Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2011

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty on the ninetieth birthday of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, to assure Her Majesty of the great pleasure felt by this House on so joyful an occasion.

That the said Address be presented to Her Majesty by such Members of the House as are of Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council or of Her Majesty’s Household.

That a Message be sent to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, to offer His Royal Highness the warmest good wishes of the House upon the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, expressing the gratitude of the nation for his lifetime of service to the country and the Commonwealth and praying that His Royal Highness may long continue in health and happiness.

That Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Sir George Young and Edward Miliband do wait upon His Royal Highness with the said Message.

This week we celebrate the 90th birthday of a remarkable man who has given years of service to our country. Someone who has defended his nation in time of war. A man who has stood alongside Her Majesty the Queen for more than six decades. A man who has given his time, effort and passion to many great causes up and down the country, across the Commonwealth and indeed around the world. I refer, of course, to His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Since the time of William the Conqueror there has never been a consort who has served for so long at the side of a monarch and, as such, Prince Philip has seen extraordinary events in life from the end of rationing to man landing on the moon, and from the end of the cold war to the beginning of peace in Northern Ireland. Of course, along the way he has had to put up with listening to the views of no fewer than 12 Prime Ministers. Through it all he has been there for Her Majesty the Queen as a constant companion and source of rock solid strength. Throughout it all he has served us, the British people, with an unshakeable sense of duty. He has conducted more than 300 public engagements a year and delivered more than 5,000 speeches.

Over those years, he has also made more than 600 visits to more than 140 countries. In most of those, he is heralded and much respected as the consort of a monarch, but, of course, there is one—Tanna, part of Vanuatu—where he is treated slightly differently. In fact, no public event in that far off part of the Pacific Islands is complete without the islanders holding aloft pictures of Prince Philip, whom they worship as a god.

Of course, His Royal Highness served this country long before his royal duties began. The Duke of Edinburgh spent 14 years on active service in the Royal Navy. During the second world war he served with the Mediterranean and Pacific fleets. He was awarded the Greek war cross of valour and was mentioned in dispatches when he manned the searchlights during HMS Valiant’s triumph at the battle of Cape Matapan. In a fitting tribute to his outstanding abilities, the late Lord Lewin, the First Sea Lord, said he would most certainly have gone right to the top of the Navy.

Today the Duke of Edinburgh is a patron of more than 800 organisations. Looking through that long list, one passion shines through: supporting young people by giving them the confidence to stand on their own two feet. It was this passion that led him to initiate the Duke of Edinburgh awards, recognised around the world as the gold standard in leadership for young people. Since 1956, about 6 million young people in 120 countries have won awards by building skills for work and life and proving that they can take responsibility for themselves and their communities. To all of us in this Chamber who believe in the value of helping to change people’s lives for the better, that is an inspiration. His is a huge achievement for which this country and many others owe the Duke a deserved debt of gratitude.

He also has an extraordinary passion for wildlife, nature and the environment. As president of the World Wildlife Fund, he helped to save many of the world’s most beautiful creatures from extinction, including the snow leopard and the black rhino.

The Duke is also a passionate family man and I know that all of us would like to congratulate him on becoming a great-grandfather for the first time with the birth of Savannah Phillips at the end of last year.

He has done all these things in his own inimitable way, with a down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach that I believe the British people find endearing. Of course, many of us who give public speeches would be honoured to have a book published of our most famous sayings. There have been several published of his. My own favourite was when, after a long flight, the umpteenth eager-to-please official asked him, “How was your flight?” He replied, “Have you been on a plane? Well, you know how it goes up in the air and then comes back down again? Well, it was just like that.”

I would like to go on for a great deal longer but I am reminded of His Royal Highness’s remark about sermons that overrun. It is not just sage advice for clergy in the pulpit but, I think, probably for us in this place, too. As the Duke put it, “The mind cannot absorb what the backside cannot endure.” With that in mind, let me give the final say to the person who knows him best of all, Her Majesty the Queen. She said in a speech to mark their golden wedding anniversary that he had been her

“strength and stay all these years”

and that she and

“his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in wishing His Royal Highness health, happiness and above all a very special 90th birthday.

May I second the motion in the name of the Prime Minister and associate myself and my party entirely with the sentiments that he has just expressed? As the Duke of Edinburgh approaches his 90th birthday, he is, as the Prime Minister said, the longest-serving consort and the oldest serving spouse of any British monarch. The Duke and Her Majesty have been married for 64 years. As a relatively new spouse, I have particular admiration for that achievement and I realise that it will take me 63 years, 11 months and 20 days to catch up.

The Duke of Edinburgh has been a constant companion to Her Majesty throughout her reign and he has shown a moving love, support and devotion to Her Majesty that has been unfailing. He has also made an enormous contribution to public life here in Britain and right across the Commonwealth in his own right. He is the patron of hundreds of organisations that focus on the environment, industry, sport and education but he is perhaps best known, as the Prime Minister said, for the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, which he established 55 years ago to give young people a sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities. I am sure that every Member of the House will have had the experience of visiting a local school in their constituency and seeing the eyes of young people light up as they talk about the excitement, passion and sense of achievement they have got from doing the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. For that, we owe the Duke of Edinburgh a huge debt of gratitude.

The Duke is a reminder to us all of the unique spirit of public service that the monarchy discharges to the British people at home and abroad. That affection was evident at the wedding last month of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The Duke of Edinburgh has been a prince among consorts, but is, if I might put it this way, a king among characters. His unique turn of phrase has become a much-loved feature of modern British life. There are two repeatable examples that I want to share with the House. To the matron of a hospital he visited in the Caribbean, he commented:

“You have mosquitoes. I have the Press.”

That is a sentiment that many of us should share at various times in politics. Legend also has it that following the coronation in 1953, he turned to Her Majesty and said:

“Where did you get that hat?”

Humour is a great part of British life and we thank the Duke for his unique contribution.

We owe the Duke a great debt for the personal and professional sacrifices he has made to serve our country. He was, as the Prime Minister said, a distinguished naval officer who, at just 21, became one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy, but he put his professional ambitions aside to be the loyal consort to the Queen. When asked in a recent interview if he had been disappointed to give up his naval career, he said that he had been a little disappointed but that, more importantly, it seemed to him that his duty was to serve the Queen

“in the best way I could.”

The Duke embodies qualities of duty, loyalty, public service and good humour—great British qualities. He came from a generation who were prepared to sacrifice everything they had for this country and their values. As he approaches his 90th birthday, I once again pay great and humble tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh for all he has done for Queen and country.

May I, with the indulgence of the House, add a few personal words in support of the excellent speeches of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition? I have had the great good fortune and the inestimable honour to have known His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh for 50 years. I first met him when I was, as the psalmist said, yet

“in the slippery paths of youth”.

I want to take this brief moment, therefore, to add my own salute to Prince Philip. He is, in my view, one of the most exceptional men of his generation. No one can fail to be struck by the great breadth of his interests, the profound depth of his knowledge of them, and his distinguished and energetic contribution to our national life through the many organisations with which he is closely associated and over which he takes so much time and trouble.

As both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition made clear, all of us in our constituency duties will have come across the beaming faces of the young who have taken part at one level or another in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award schemes, an organisation in which millions of young people in more than 60 countries have taken part. That in itself is a remarkable achievement and one of which I hope Prince Philip is properly proud. In his work as the first president of the World Wildlife Fund—in which, incidentally, he was well ahead of his time—and through his profound interest in nature and wildlife conservation, as well as in environmental questions more generally, he has played an important, innovative and highly influential role for many years, both at home and abroad.

On a day like today one cannot hope to do full justice to Prince Philip’s inspirational work in the promotion of science, design and industry, or his work with the armed forces, but I conclude by saying that we in the House feel gratitude, respect and pride for Prince Philip’s exceptional service to his country, and recall that he is part of that remarkable generation that served with distinction during the war, did their duty and just got on with it, and then got on with the rebuilding of Britain afterwards.

Prince Philip certainly is a formidable man and, refreshingly, does not suffer fools gladly, as I know to my cost. He is, above all, to himself true, and a most especially devoted and loving husband, father and grandfather. His many qualities should shine brightly for us today since they march with great good humour, a complete lack of any side or pomposity, and a clear, thoughtful and generous understanding of the world in which we all live. I join my parliamentary colleagues in sending to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh my warmest congratulations and most profound respects on his 90th birthday.

The supreme achievement of the Duke of Edinburgh is that he is working at the age of 90. This is a magnificent example and one that has been followed by a constituent of mine, Mr Harry Polloway, who is working as a toastmaster at the age of 97. I last saw him in the Jewish cemetery in my constituency, where we were commemorating the death of May Mendleson, who died last year at the age of 108. Continuing work into that period of life is a wonderful example to set, and one that we can look at with some embarrassment and shame in the House, where I believe the oldest Member—a distinguished Member—is just 80 years of age, and we have only five Members over the age of 76.

This group of people are disgracefully under-represented in the House. If we are to have a proper reflection of senior citizens, we must look to have all-80-year-old shortlists at the next general election. In the light of the heroic examples set by Prince Philip, Harry Polloway and May Mendleson, that fault needs to be corrected.

However, my purpose in speaking today is to make another point. As someone who is not a royalist and is happy to say that I am a republican and always have been, I want to ask why on earth, in this age, the address is to be “humble”. Are members of the royal family superior beings to the rest of us? Are we inferior beings to them? Is Prince Philip superior to Harry Polloway and May Mendleson? That was the feeling of the House seven centuries ago, when we accepted the rules under which we speak now.

We live in an egalitarian time when we recognise the universality of the human condition, in which royals and commoners share the same strengths and frailty. In the House, when we speak of the royals—not just the monarch, but all the family, without any limit—we are denied the chance of making any derogatory comment. That might extend to first cousins who are a long way distant from the monarch. There is no question but that the monarch—the Head of State—should remain above the political fray. We have been well served by this, particularly recently.

However, if these occasions are to be greatly valued, it should be possible for Members to utter the odd syllable that might be critical. I do not have anything to say in this case, but the sycophancy described by the Prime Minister when he referred to someone asking Prince Philip a fairly obvious question when he came off a plane must sicken the royal family. When they have an excess of praise of this kind, it is devalued.

No one would accuse me of being an ardent royalist, but will my hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that the most terrifying dictatorships—terrorist dictatorships—of the last century, including Germany, Russia and China, have been republics?

I was coming to the final sentence of my speech, but I would be happy to discuss that at some length. If my hon. Friend is asking whether the Queen has been a monarch of whom we should be proud, a monarch who has served this country in a way that is probably unparalleled, and whether she has maintained political neutrality throughout those years, I would say yes. We particularly appreciated her work in Ireland recently, where she has done much to restore the link. That is not the point of what I am saying today.

I am saying that the House has allowed itself to be infantilised by our own history into a position in which we are not allowed to make any criticism—not just of the person whom we are talking about today, but of other members of the royal family as well. It stretches to all of them. By accepting today that the address is a humble one, we demean the honour of our elected office. We were elected by the first-past-the-post system, but those with hereditary offices are in their place as a result of what Tony Benn once called the first-past-the-bedpost system. We should be free in this House to tell the whole truth as citizens, not gagged as subservient subjects.

I have no difficulty in supporting the motion proposed by the Prime Minister and seconded by the Leader of the Opposition, and on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, sending our very warmest wishes to Prince Philip for his birthday on Friday.

The Prime Minister referred to the fact that Prince Philip is already in the record books as the longest-serving consort. My limited research immediately revealed two other things. He is also in the record books for being the last surviving great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria—and, even more extraordinarily, is apparently currently in the line of succession to 16 thrones. If ever we wanted an example of how interconnected our European continent is, he is probably the living embodiment of that.

Prince Philip was born in the same year as my late mother, so when we were growing up, my parents, my brothers and I often found him featuring in the conversation as a sort of point of comparison in youthfulness and activity on which we were asked to model ourselves.

In addition to his obvious loyal, steadfast and wonderful roles as husband, consort, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, I suggest that the Duke of Edinburgh also plays the role of the most active citizen. He is an active citizen in many countries of the Commonwealth, which he has supported throughout his time in public life. He is wonderfully active in his inspired award scheme, which has already been referred to. I am one of the lucky people who benefited from being a Duke of Edinburgh’s award winner. The prize was going to receive the award from him at Buckingham palace. The punishment—the preparation for the prize—was being nearly frozen to death in Snowdonia on an expedition the previous Easter; it was not an award achieved lightly.

The Duke of Edinburgh has always encouraged participation in sport, which is very important. Reference has rightly been made to his very early commitment to conservation world wide. When he became president of the World Wildlife Fund, he encouraged millions of people, particularly young people, to realise the importance of conservation, not only at home but on the other side of the world.

Lastly, we cannot avoid referring to the fact that the great thing about Prince Philip is his ability to comment, and to do so publicly from time to time, in a no-nonsense, down-to-earth and—thank God—humorous manner. At least two of his children have the same quality, for which we should be grateful. It is typical that he is working on his birthday this week. That should encourage everyone in the country who sees retirement looming to think that they may still have a long time to go. We wish him a very happy birthday on Friday, happy and enjoyable celebrations over the weekend and continuing robust health and much happiness in all his years ahead. We thank him for a lifetime of incomparable public service.

On behalf of my hon. and right hon. Friends, and indeed the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, I heartily endorse the sentiments that have been so eloquently expressed this afternoon on the occasion of His Royal Highness’s 90th birthday. We send him our warmest congratulations.

His Royal Highness bears many titles. When I looked at them the other day, I found that reading them all out would almost be a speech in itself. Some people today might dismiss such titles as anachronisms, but in my view they are not: they speak to us of the history of our Union, our nation and our Commonwealth. With nearly 60 years as royal consort, Prince Philip has been a living example of the steadfast values that created and sustain to this day our Union, our nation and our Commonwealth. Throughout his life he has exemplified the qualities of duty, sacrifice and service to country and Commonwealth, and all carried with great humanity and humour, as we have noted. In the course of that service, he has visited Northern Ireland on many occasions, and we look forward to further such visits, when he can again be assured of the warmest of welcomes.

Beyond his formal duties, the Duke of Edinburgh has worked with hundreds of different causes and organisations and maintains to this day a schedule that many younger people would baulk at. Of all this work, the crowning glories are undoubtedly the World Wildlife Fund and the award that bear his title, the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. His work with WWF was literally decades ahead of its time, as has been said, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award will this year break the 2 million mark for the number of children and young people who have gained an award. Proudly, Northern Ireland boasts the highest participation levels in the award scheme in the United Kingdom. Few individuals on earth can boast that they have written the rulebook of a sport, but he can—for carriage driving, which he once described as a geriatric sport.

As we approach the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne, we rightly reflect on the tremendous service that the monarch has given to this country, its people and the Commonwealth. When Her Majesty was crowned in Westminster Abbey, Prince Philip pledged to

“become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.”

Truly it can be said today that he has fulfilled that pledge in both word and spirit. For any man or woman, there are few better compliments that can be paid than to be recognised and respected for a lifetime of loyalty, steadfastness and truth to their word. For that and so much more, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, deserves our nation’s deepest gratitude, our heartiest congratulations and our sincere prayers for God’s blessing and continued health and happiness.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today to the motion for a humble address to be presented to Her Majesty on the 90th birthday of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. I was fortunate enough some time ago to be given a role in the royal household, working for Her Majesty and senior members of the royal family, advising on strategic changes to the monarchy and briefing on key areas of national life. What struck me most when working at the palace was the incredible work load not just of Her Majesty the Queen, but of His Royal Highness. I commend him highly on his commitment to service over the years.

The Duke of Edinburgh not only attends many engagements on his own, but accompanies the Queen on her Commonwealth tours, state visits overseas and visits to many parts of the United Kingdom. On average, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier, he carries out more than 350 engagements a year. He is also patron or president of some 800 organisations, with special interests in scientific and technological research and development, the encouragement of sport, the welfare of young people and conservation and the environment.

In 1956 the Duke founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s award in order to give young people

“a sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities”.

That has made a lasting contribution to our society and benefited many thousands of young people. A sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities is exactly what we are trying to create with the big society, so perhaps after all it was His Royal Highness who led the way and helped to inspire the policy.

In my constituency, many young people and schools are involved in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme. Chiswick community school is particularly grateful for the award scheme. In the words of Tony Ryan, the school’s head teacher:

“We value the Duke of Edinburgh award more than I can say. The award helps build social and team building skills and independence. It takes kids out of their comfort zones—many kids have never been to the countryside before and often you see a completely different side to them. It really makes them think differently.”

When I visited Gunnersbury Catholic school recently, people were also talking about the benefits of the award scheme. Kevin Burke, the school’s head teacher, sent me pages of comments from students, a few of which I want to mention. James Phelan said:

“The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme opened my eyes to many new and challenging experiences, from which I learnt many life skills and values”.

Tom Sylvester said:

“The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme was a fantastic experience which has allowed me to put myself through all of my paces. I have managed to learn new skills that would have been nigh-on impossible. What I liked the most about this epic journey was the choice that was available and that I could complete it with my friends. I believe this experience has changed my life forever and has adjusted my perspective on life.”

Felix said:

“The Duke of Edinburgh bronze award brought many challenges and people could gain many valuable skills such as leadership.”

Jack said:

“The award scheme was an amazing experience”.

Jesse said:

“My Duke of Edinburgh experience was an experience of a lifetime”.

I would like to conclude by thanking His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh for his contribution to our society, his patronage of more than 800 organisations, his unstinting commitment to public life as the longest-serving royal consort in British history and, in particular, for the truly remarkable legacy for young people today from the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, and finally for the personal support he gives Her Majesty on a daily basis.

His Royal Highness is a real example and inspiration to us all. If more people were encouraging many others to support voluntary organisations and helping young people gain life skills and experience for their future, bringing out the best in them, this country would be a much better place. I support the motion, which is our way of thanking His Royal Highness for his lifetime of service to the country and the Commonwealth.

I wholeheartedly support the motion in the name of the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I do not want to repeat all that has been said by other Members, but I will mention one further capacity that His Royal Highness has: the ability to put MPs in their place.

Parmjit Dhanda, when he was the Member for Gloucester, was invited in 2001, as I think was the current Prime Minister and others elected that year—it was our 10th anniversary yesterday—to Buckingham palace, and the Duke of Edinburgh went up to Parmjit and said, “So, what did you do before you got this job?” Parmjit said, “I worked in a trade union.” The Duke immediately replied, “Bugger all, then.” Parmjit, somewhat offended and thinking that he would retaliate with force, asked, “Well, what did you do before you got this job?”, to which the Duke replied, “Fought in the second world war.”

So, notwithstanding the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), I think that there are occasions when a little humility from this House towards His Royal Highness is entirely appropriate.

The Duke of Edinburgh is clearly someone who does not take well to compliments, but he will just have to put up with them this week, because quite frankly he deserves those compliments, not just because it is his 90th birthday on Friday, but because for more than 60 years, since their marriage in 1947, he has been the bedrock of support for Her Majesty the Queen—the constant and loyal support and the dutiful and honourable consort, perpetually at her side over the 59 years of her reign so far and, please God, for years to come. He is the longest-living consort in 1,000 years of British history, surpassing, only a couple of years ago, Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III—but I am reliably informed that that is the only thing he has in common with Queen Charlotte.

The Duke may be 90 years old, but he has something to teach the youngest generations, and that is the principle of duty and service, as we have heard from other hon. Members. Nowadays, many people are accustomed to doing something only if they want to do it and only if it suits them. Many have an expectation of what their rights are, but not of what their responsibilities may be.

Many of the prince’s generation, maturing in the 1940s, understood the importance of doing a thing because it was the right thing to do for someone else, or for the country—but of course that sense of duty is not entirely extinguished today; very far from it. I had the honour of spending two days at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, last week, and I met many young cadets in their 20s and even younger who are very much focused on serving others—a willingness to serve, and certainly not for financial reward. They want to give something back.

The British are a very generous people and give vast sums and amounts of time to charities, and that is reflected in Her Majesty’s Government’s international development policy, but the Duke has done a great deal for this country over generations, as well as supporting the Queen. Not the least of those is the welfare of young children, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a few minutes ago. The Duke established the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme in 1956, and it has seen more than 7 million work to achieve an award. He meets the gold award winners personally.

The Duke is patron of some 800 organisations and has flown almost 6,000 hours in dozens of aircraft, but he was always what would now be called a type A personality—a leader. At Salem, as a pre-teenage boy in the early 1930s, the Nazis started to creep into school life, but Prince Philip used apparently to break into fits of laughter when he saw them and clearly even then considered them contemptible. Perhaps that is not surprising when one considers that his late mother is honoured in Yad Vashem in Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations”.

The Duke went on to be head boy, or guardian, at school in Gordonstoun. At the Royal Naval college he came top of the class and won the King’s dirk. He captained a warship at an extremely early age during world war two, and he served on battleships and destroyers throughout the second world war, even being mentioned in dispatches. He was involved in the allied invasion of Sicily, and was in Tokyo bay to witness the surrender of the imperial Japanese.

Still carrying out hundreds of public engagements a year at the age of 89, the Duke has given so many speeches that they apparently take up several volumes of shelf space, and he has never done anything that would affect his personal integrity or the integrity of the Crown. It is clear that his grandchildren love and respect him. He has borne the vicious cruelty, at times, of the press in this country with dignity and poise, and he has never once in public life done anything to embarrass Her Majesty the Queen or to weaken the dignity or integrity of the Crown—despite the odd controversial remark.

The Duke should be, and I believe is, a guiding light to others showing the correct way to behave with duty, honour, service and tradition.

Question put and agreed to, nemine contradicente.